Social Justice

Faithful and Alive in Exile

posted on 03/09/10 03:40 pm by Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R.  

Exile, the home I have with God.
God, the home I have in exile.

On a sabbatical in 1984 I met and studied with Marc Ellis. Marc, a Jewish thinker, was trying to deal with God after the Holocaust. I, a Christian, was trying to believe that God truly does hear the cry of the poor. Jews, the chosen ones, felt abandoned by their God in the Holocaust. The poor of Latin America and sectors of our Canadian cities felt left out, on the margins, non-persons. Marc and I began a conversation about solitude and solidarity, resistance and community, belief and committed truth. Eighteen years later Marc, a professor of American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University, brings his reflection to a new book entitled: Practicing Exile. I continue to vagabond about with bible in hand, reading the signs of the times and knowing dislocation.

Walter Brueggemann suggests that we are in a period of major dislocation and exile. He compares our times to those experienced by the ancient Israelites in captivity and exile in Babylon. Psychologically these times are as devastating as those experienced by ancient Israel. They are as defining. We too experience profound exile. What once fed and nourished us no longer sustains us. Brueggemann suggests that the old certitudes are less certain. The old privileges are under powerful challenge. The old institutions (governmental, educational, judicial, medical, ecclesiastical) seem less and less to deliver what is intended and long counted upon. It is reported that for a few weeks after September 11th attendance at churches and synagogues increased by, in some instances, a third. Recent reports suggest that attendance has returned to pre September 11th numbers. The churches and synagogues it seems were unable to deliver. They were tried once again by many and again found wanting. The old social fabrics of neighborliness are eroded into selfishness, fear, anger and greed. Linda McQuaig in her new book: All You Can Eat – Greed, Lust and the New Capitalism, describes well these times. McQuaig writes: “our society has made greed and material acquisitiveness its central organizing principle….to the point where elaborate international legal systems have been put in place to ensure not only that greed and the pursuit of material gain are given legal protection, but that they are given supremacy.”

Brueggemann assures us that these displacements are irreversible. Even though there is a fundamentalism all around us, there is no going back because the circumstances making that world sustainable are gone from us. Fundamentalism is about fear, anxiety, control and lack of faith. It is a failure to believe in an incarnate God. It is an inability to realize that we are “carried in the womb of Yahweh,” “carved in the palm of God’s hand.”

Like the Israelites of old, we too are living in a time of major dislocation and exile. It is of no purpose to wish that we could live in better times or cocoon ourselves from the harshness of these our times as many in religion are attempting to do. This is our time and it is God’s time for us. If we are in exile and dislocation, then let us be there and be there well so that we like the Israelites of old as recorded in Second Isaiah might come to a new moment of vision, hope and temple worship. Lent is such a time to begin.

Jim Corbett a philosopher from Harvard University left academia and went to the desert of Arizona and with others founded the Sanctuary movement. He would help Central and Latin Americans fleeing oppression and death find sanctuary in communities of resistance in the United States and Canada. Before Jim died in the late summer of 2001, I had the great fortune of spending time in the desert at his home. We discussed a book he had written years earlier: Goatwalking. Jim would go into the desert alone for days, weeks and even a month at a time. He would take a few goats and he would live from their milk and what he was able to find in the desert. He was able to see and find life and life-giving nourishment in the desert. I reminded Jim of something I had learned earlier and experienced myself in the Judean desert of Israel: Desert Eyes. In order to live and find nourishment in the desert one needs desert eyes to be able to see and find that which nourishes, gives life and sustains us in difficult and dangerous times.

If these our times are for many truly times of dislocation, exile or desert, then Lent is surely a time for the Christian to be about developing desert eyes. Such a task is not easy for the average Canadian. In order to develop desert eyes one must be in the desert long enough to do so. Most of us run from dislocation and desert into instant gratification and avoidance through addictions and consumerism. “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,” reads a bumper sticker. To develop desert eyes we must come to our senses, a feat difficult in times of psychic numbing and distractions. So many of us spend so much of our day about the management of distractions. A good definition of spirituality for us during this season of Lent might be: Paying attention in an age of distractions.

Remaining in exile and living the dislocation with eyes wide open with the firm conviction that a God who is faithful is somehow mysteriously present in exile, we can remain free and fully alive. The desert of exile is full of life and provides wells of true human and spiritual nourishment. However we need to be there for a while for our eyes adjust. Only then will we see the wonderful life that can comfort, nourish, heal and invite awe and wonder. Only then will we experience a new deed being done. Only then will we see a gracious God mysteriously at work leading all of creation to the fullness of life. For “Eye has not seen nor ear heard what has been prepared for you.” We will encounter paths in this wilderness of exile and streams of new life in this desert of dislocation. We will be able to discern the true from the fraudulent, life from its imitation. We will know that at the end all we can take with us is what we have given away.

This season of Lent is a kairos , an anointed time to develop desert eyes to see, pay attention, to be mindful in this age of distractions and dislocation. The president of the United States told us that the best way to respond to the bombings of September 11th was to get out and spend – the North American response to many things. No. Go rather into desert and find memory and hope. We hear the cry of the blind man in John’s gospel and need to make it our own: “That I may see.” The world did not change forever on September 11th. The world changed in 33AD.

Paul E. Hansen

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